Why I Hate The Idea Of Privilege

L’Oreal’s first transgender model, hired to promote “diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion”, has been sacked after calling all white people racist.

Munroe Bergdorf’s Facebook rant went like this:

Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people.

Because most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism. From micro-aggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this s***.

Come see me when you realise that racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited and consciously or unconsciously passed down through privilege.

Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth… then we can talk.

Until then stay acting shocked about how the world continues to stay f***** at the hands of your ancestors and your heads that remain buried in the sand with hands over your ears.

I can’t put together the timeline but either before or after her sacking this morning, Munroe wrote a far more sensible and thought out piece explaining what she meant.  Although there is obvious back-tracking (“racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited” versus “no one is born racist”) and some parts that still don’t quite hang together for me, here it is:

This ‘rant’ was a direct response to the violence of WHITE SUPREMACISTS in Charlottesville. It was not written this week.

Secondly, identifying that the success of the British Empire has been at the expense of the people of colour, is not something that should offend ANYONE. It is a fact. It happened.

Slavery and colonialism, at the hands of white supremacy, played a huge part in shaping the United Kingdom and much of the west, into the super power that it is today.

Whether aware of it or not, in today’s society the lighter your skin tone (people of colour included) the more social privileges you will be afforded.

Whether that’s access to housing, healthcare, employment or credit. A person’s race and skin tone has a HUGE part to play in how they are treated by society as a whole, based on their proximity to whiteness.

When I stated that “all white people are racist”, I was addressing that fact that western society as a whole, is a SYSTEM rooted in white supremacy – designed to benefit, prioritise and protect white people before anyone of any other race.

Unknowingly, white people are SOCIALISED to be racist from birth onwards. It is not something genetic. No one is born racist.

We also live in a society where men are SOCIALISED to be sexist. Women are SOCIALISED to be submissive.

Gay people are SOCIALISED to be ashamed of their sexuality due to heterosexual people’s homophobia. Cisgender people are SOCIALISED to be transphobic. We do not need to be this way.

We are not born this way and we can learn to reject it. We are just socially conditioned to think this way from an early age.

With the right education, empathy and open mindedness we can unlearn these socialisations and live a life where we don’t oppress others and see things from other people’s points of view.

So when a transgender woman of colour, who has been selected to front up a big brand campaign to combat discrimination and lack of diversity in the beauty industry, speaks on her actual lived experience of being discriminated against because of her race and identifies the root of where that discrimination lies – white supremacy and systemic racism – that big brand cannot simply state that her thoughts are not ‘in line with the ethics of the brand.

If you truly want equality and diversity, you need to actively work to dismantle the source of what created this discrimination and division in the first place.

You cannot just simply cash in because you’ve realised there’s a hole in the market and that there is money to be made from people of colour who have darker skin tones.

The irony of all this is that L’Oréal Paris invited me to be part of a beauty campaign that ‘stands for diversity’.

The fact that up until very recently, there has been next to no mainstream brands offering makeup for black women and ethnic minorities, is in itself due to racism within the industry.

Most big brands did not want to sell to black women. Most big brands did not want to acknowledge that there was a HUGE demographic that was being ignored.

Because they did not believe that there was MONEY to be made in selling beauty products to ethnic minorities.

If L’Oreal truly wants to offer empowerment to underrepresented women, then they need to acknowledge THE REASON why these women are underrepresented within the industry in the first place.

This reason is discrimination – an action which punches down from a place of social privilege. We need to talk about why women of colour were and still are discriminated against within the industry, not just see them as a source of revenue.

Racism may be a jagged pill to swallow, but I suggest you force it down quickly if you want to be part of the solution. Doing nothing, does nothing and solves nothing.

Empowerment and inclusivity are not trends, these are people’s lives and experiences. If brands are going to use empowerment as a tool to push product to people of colour, then the least they can do is actually work us to dismantle the source, not throw us under the bus when it comes to the crunch. At times like this, it becomes blindly obvious what is genuine allyship and what is performative.

I stand for tolerance and acceptance – but neither can be achieved if we are unwilling to discuss WHY intolerance and hate exist in the first place.

(For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Munroe’s first statement fits with what L’Oreal is supposedly trying to do because it was divisive and angry and failed to treat all people as equal, however true anyone says it is.  Whether that calls for a sacking or not is up for debate.)

I’d read about the “rant” (the first statement) before news of the sacking and the second statement became news.  My reaction, as a straight, middle aged, Western white man was, “why are people outraged? That’s what people have been telling me for years.”

Privilege is something that any minority group would wish to remind me of because I was (un)fortunate enough to be born with both a penis and white skin.  This comes even though a YouGov analysis of 48 surveys of public attitudes in December 2015 found that young white men are viewed as ‘the worst ethnic, gender [and] age group’. They are ‘the most derided ethnic group in Britain’.

That sort of analysis is why I actually believe that any talk of privilege does not move along or advance any movement towards a solution of true equality.  Whenever someone says that someone else is the cause, that person is going to get defensive and start pointing at reports to the contrary, or they simply get outraged as we’ve seen with the reaction to Munroe.

That causes the accuser to need to explain that privilege is a general concept referring to a large demographic rather then necessarily a tangible benefit in one’s own life.  That or the accuser will simply mock sympathy which further causes confrontation.

Everything has a reason for being, that it originated from.  However, admitting to privilege or defending it does not in itself move towards equality if we believe that an entire race as a thing is at fault because that race will, more than likely, exist for many centuries to come.

When putting both of Munroe’s statements together saying that all white people are racist and then saying that we can choose to reject social influences, she is effectively saying that all white people have chosen not to.

The white supremacists in Charlottesville prove that racism exists and that it can and does come from white people.  There were also white people the world over who found the fascist, racist action in Charlottesville deplorable.

The reason I hate using the term privilege is that I can’t see how it can be fixed or remedied.  Even if a majority accept it as a reason for inequality, understand it and use it for good, because it has roots in the distant past people will always be able to bring it up.

If I try to use it positively, if I see people not being treated equally because they are not “privileged”, I’m open to accusations of a saviour complex.  Even in noting that, I leave myself open to people saying how disappointing my privileged life must be, ad infinitum.  There is always a come back from both sides.  It feels like there is nothing I can do to remove its existence in any aspect of life because I am Me.

Munroe is not a trailblazer in this field and her statements are not groundbreaking – every point has been said before.  There is a large body of white people already that have reached the point of wanting to talk (as she put it) through acceptance of privilege and she shouldn’t be saying that there aren’t.  That will set us back and that was why there was uproar.  If Munroe where to say that there are no white people at all who acknowledge privilege after all the work that has been done before her, then this would be further sad evidence that privilege is an unsolvable problem.

I don’t know what the solution to privilege is.  I don’t think there is one, it’s one of those things that we can only accept as an explanatory concept to particular problems.  We can then treat the fact that we all have particular privilege compared to someone else with humility.

Teaching a class of children that those with white skin are racist because their ancestors were and those with darker skin are oppressed because their ancestors were will only reinforce the oppression we’re seeking to remove.  You then need to teach them that we are all equal and that we need to fight for a society that reflects that.

Nor do I think that privilege is a root cause.  Saying that we do things in a certain way today because that’s how we did it in the past removes the focus on why people did it in the past.

The first white person to enslave a black person because they were black didn’t have precedent to call on as a reason for him doing so.  He did it because he was an arsehole who thought himself better than someone else for a reason particular to himself.  The first person who told a woman to “know her place” did so not because someone else did, but because he was an arsehole who thought himself better than someone else for a reason particular to himself.

The ideas then spread to an extent that it was seen as acceptable.

It’s for this reason that I disagree with Munroe.  I appreciate that I can’t fully understand struggles that I am incapable of living, but I’m not convinced that the way to solve a problem is to be overly liberal with who we blame because I can’t see the solution there.  Munroe doesn’t venture one, other than to accept it.  I don’t see how that will get us anywhere.  Me realising that I’m privileged as I sit on my sofa at home in England won’t stop another white man in another country shooting a black man because he’s black.  Educating the shooter might.

Attitudes can spread from individuals, so surely it’s better to target them first?  Then we can start doing something about it.


Comments 1

  1. Judy Dykstra-Brown

    The point is that stereotyping is stereotyping no matter what sector of humanity it is directed towards. To say all whites are racially prejudiced is as unfair as to say all blacks are criminals or all southerners are KKKers. We just have to give up thinking that how we look determines how we think. My first thought at seeing your article was how wonderful it was that this stand was taken. My second thought was how beautiful she was. I, too, need to learn not to determine how someone looks determines how they think. Her calm look did not reveal the anger and stereotyping that her words did.

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